I saw Django Unchained over the past weekend. I liked it a lot. I’m going to try to work out why I liked it so much in as few words as possible. Historically when I write about movies, I tend to go for a comprehensive read–I play the Zizek by trying to sum the whole experience up into a tight, neat ball. That isn’t possible with Django Unchained, which is a huge compliment to the film. I agree with Josh K-sky when he says that Tarantino’s films are “excesses of signifying” and while that doesn’t make me headachy, it does make writing about his films exhausting. To alleviate that, I want to hit on one quality of the film: discomfort.
Discomfort; the dismissal, the removal, of comfort itself. The opposite of comfort. If I have my etymology right, comfort itself is confortare–“to strengthen.” So to create discomfort is to, in some way, weaken; it is to remove strength, to break the scaffolding that holds the viewer up.
With that bit of academic wankery plopped down, I guess I can get around to my point. Django Unchained has a couple moments that made me profoundly uncomfortable. The first was the “Mandingo fighting scene” where two black men are forced to fight to the death. The second is when a slave is torn apart by dogs. The third, and most discomforting, is the assortment of scenes with Stephen.
The first and the second are violent, but violent in the way that the ear cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs is violent. It is off-screen. The viewer witnesses the effects mostly through sound and reaction–we experience violence not as something rendered into the visual, but through its signifiers. We are denied a sense of violence; instead, we get a substitute, a subjective reaction that makes it that much more brutal.
However, that isn’t the “soul” of the scene. The aesthetics–the brutal violence–masks what is really occurring: the mechanisms of slavery.
The scene of two men fighting to the death is not terrible merely because two men are fighting to the death. There is the additional factor of the institution of slavery and that these men, as property, cannot break the systemic conditions that force this violence on them. There is also an indictment of the viewer of the fight itself–the white men in the room want to see two black bodies destroy one another. They paid money, and they want “bang for their buck,” the more horrible the better.
This, I think, is also the root of Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled. At one point, a character in that film says (and I am paraphrasing) that “audiences love to see black buffoons on television.” Spike Lee goes on to prey on that reality by then showing, at length, a minstrel show with all of its comedic stylings. The most brutal part of the minstrel show in Bamboozled is that parts are actually funny. Historically, it sort of makes sense. The history of comedy in film is a history that moves directly from minstrelsy to vaudeville to modern comedy. The order of things that makes minstrel shows funny is the same order of things that undergirds contemporary comedy shows.
We are taught what is funny on the back of minstrelsy.
The “Mandingo fight” is, for me, the counterpart for the minstrel show in Bamboozled. It is a violent event that is ultimately entertaining in a hyperviolent way–it has all of the beats of both contemporary fight scenes, but also has its origins in a past where those fights were real. It both presents itself on-face as a cinematic construction, but also forces us to reckon with the history of what we are seeing–it indexes history, and in doing so, haunts me.
I am discomforted by this. I am unsettled. I am broken from my moorings, my anchoring in the seat; I am made to feel explicitly complicit in the scene itself. The scene itself, unlike so many other violent scenes, was hard for me to watch; I felt sick. I felt like a betrayer for witnessing, for taking pleasure in the film itself. It held up a mirror; the film said “fuck you.”
The fight scene has to exist, however, for us to fully appreciate Samuel L. Jackson’s characterization of Stephen in the last third of the film. Stephen, who Chauncy Devega writes is “the Uncle of all Uncle Toms and the Grand Emperor of Steppin Fetchits,” is the grand culmination of audience indictment in the film.
Stephen is amazingly funny–Jackson calling people motherfuckers always is, after all. More than that, we’re used to it, and we come to expect it from him. I, watching the film, know that Jackson is going to come at the role in a certain way, and that way is going to be funny. At the same time, Leonard DiCaprio’s slave-owning evil asshole thinks Stephen is hilarious, too. His comedy, and his crotchety hate for everyone else, is an act used to pander to white oppressors. The penultimate scene of the film reveals this explicitly–Stephen drops his cane, stands tall, and speaks seriously. All of the white people are gone. Everyone he is obligated to play up to is eradicated from the film, and he becomes deadly serious; no more laugh-inducing lines.
So we, the audience, are played up to in the same way that the plantation owners are. The act is performed for us. Stephen isn’t just the slave to DiCaprio; he is enslaved to us. He whips the audience around and makes us face history itself. Just like the “Mandingo fight,” he forces me to stop, realize why I am enjoying the film, and then recoil at myself.
My discomfort at watching Stephen perform for the people inside of the film sticks with me. My implicit enjoyment is undercut. History comes and takes it from me, and all the better. I shouldn’t have it.
Interesting Django Unchained reading going on now:
- Josh K-sky’s take on the film
- Henry Louis Gates Jr. Interviewing Tarantino
- Spike Lee says that the film is disrespectful
- Chauncy Devega on What If? Spike Lee Made Django Unchained
- Tarantino defends a plot nitpick and makes a lot of sense
- Richard Brody thinks revenge is terrible
- Cecil Brown writes on Hollywood’s “nigger joke” and the plantation/Hollywood system
- Adam Kotsko writes a review that I agree with 85%
- The Crunk Feminist Collective weighs in on context
- The Black Tongue on what he calls the “nigger count” in criticism of Django Unchained